Innovators are often mocked before they are copied – Paddling and Projects (3)

Two quick ideas this week continuing my theme of lessons from my experiences in canoeing and how they apply to projects:

  • Innovators are often mocked before they are copied
  • Don’t assume everyone else sees the shoals that you see


Innovators are often mocked before they are copied

When I first started canoeing, one of the other guys on the trip brought a headlamp rather than a regular flashlight. It was the first time any of the group had used one. We all laughed, thought it was goofy, asked him if he was planning a career in coal-mining, and made similar jokes. You might be able guess the kind of things we thought he might need two hands free in the dark for.

The next year, three of the four of us had head-lamps and now I was the odd-man. I remember at one point the rest of the group in the evening all turned their headlights on, then blinded me by all looking me in the eye at the same time! The reality is that cooking, getting into a sleeping bag, fixing your tent or hammock… at night it is all easier if you have a light, and still have your hands free.

Two other big examples from canoeing trips followed similar patterns – someone brought it, we made jokes, then later we all bought in:

  • The middle photo shows a Thermarest chair. A Thermarest is a self-inflating mattress that you sleep on top of. It provides both increased comfort and extra insulation when sleeping. They are mandatory for overnight canoe trips. But there is also an optional kit to turn it into a chair so when you are sitting around the campsite you are much more comfortable than just sitting on a log that happens to be there.
  • The sleeping hammock has replaced the tent. With a tarp over it (not shown), it is just as rainproof as a tent. And you are off the ground, so it is better for your back. You don’t have to worry about finding ‘level ground’, which as far as I can tell is a myth in the wilderness. And a hammock is much lighter than a tent with all the poles and pegs. So, it is a big improvement over the tents that we used to carry.

Be careful it isn’t the same on your project. Don’t discount a new idea because ‘that’s not the way we’ve always done it’. I remember the first time I worked on an agile project which was back in 2003. The objections we got… ‘no pre-set scope’? ‘no commitment except to finish something in a given time?’ … ‘we just add stuff to the backlog indefinitely?’ No way we’re going to agree to that! How would we do scope control? How do you know when you’re done?

And yet, because the results are there, agile is actually better in many situations and more popular than traditional waterfall for IT projects. What’s the next idea that you’re laughing at?

Here’s a quick way to check just how much you or your organization company new ideas. Think about some modern technologies: In 2019 the list includes A.I., Cloud, Blockchain, IOT.  How many are you using? Did your firm start working with at least some of these technologies five years ago, two years ago… or are they on the agenda for a small pilot next year?


Don’t assume everyone else sees the shoals that you see

The picture on the left shows the bottom side of my beautiful new canoe after three canoe trips. All of those white lines you see are the result of us ‘bottoming out’. Hitting a rock – big or small – a submerged stump or log, or just hitting the beach too fast. Sometimes in these parks you can see what we call ‘indicators’ … bits of paint left on a rock in the water where someone else’s canoe has scraped the bottom and left a trail. The person in the bow (front) is supposed to be looking for fast water, rocks or stumps, or the water getting too shallow. So that we can steer around them.

The photo on the right shows 2 friends of mine who thought that they could run up a small rapid… they took on more than they were capable of. The canoe dumped. They claimed that an invisible giant muskie hit the side of the boat!

Just like in consulting, you need to call out risks and shoals ahead. Any project can take some minor issues. My canoe doesn’t leak, and I could keep hitting the same types of rocks for many years without ever needing a repair. But don’t assume the person steering your project sees the same risks you do. Everyone needs to call out what they see and take the right steps to avoid the problem.

The picture of my friends dumping their canoe is a good example of risk mitigation. They tried to climb this rapid with the canoe empty. We had left our packs at camp and were going out to do some fishing. So, they got to try something new in a low risk scenario.

Published by

Mark Dymond, P.Eng

With over 20 years of consulting experience I've worked with clients in the banking, retail, travel and government sectors. Based in Toronto, Canada, currently I lead the Cloud consulting team for IBM Canada. I've led successful project and program teams in Canada, the US, and Europe of more than 200 people. Thoughts, comments and mistakes are most definitely my own!

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